Feature

Bil Keane, 1922–2011

The cartoonist who chronicled family life

Bil Keane’s comic strip The Family Circus was an ode to childhood and the joys and struggles of growing up—except that his characters, based on the author’s own family, never aged. During the half-century that Keane wrote and drew the cartoon, its themes remained frozen: The children would play with their pets, track dirt through the house, and wear out their loving but long-suffering “Mommy.” That consistency, Keane believed, was the key to the strip’s success. “It’s reassuring, I think, to the American public to see the same family [week after week],” he said in 1995.

Growing up in Philadelphia, Keane “drew on his bedroom walls” as a child and later contributed sketches to his high school’s magazine, said The New York Times. He soon dropped the second L off his first name, “just to be different,” he said. Keane’s parents couldn’t afford to send him to art school, said the Los Angeles Times, so after graduating he worked as a messenger at The Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper “and observed the staff artists.” During World War II, he served in the Army, drawing a strip called At Ease With the Japanese for Stars and Stripes.

After the war, Keane became a staff artist for the Bulletin, and in 1953 launched his first syndicated comic, Channel Chuckles, which poked fun at the emerging medium of television. He created The Family Circus in 1960 but said the strip only hit its stride in the mid-’60s with a panel that featured middle son Jeffy appearing late at night in his pajamas, saying, “I don’t feel so good, I think I need a hug.” Keane was bombarded with fan mail and suddenly realized “that there was something more than just getting a belly laugh every day.”

“Being so gooey and simplistically, unflappably square” made Keane a frequent target of ridicule, said the A.V. Club. But he didn’t care if critics sneered at the strip, which ran in nearly 1,500 newspapers. “I would rather have the readers react with a warm smile,” he said, “or a lump in the throat as they recall doing the same things in their own families.”

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